Elaborate state funeral for Poland's first couple

An elaborate state funeral for Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, began today bereft of many world leaders whose travel plans were paralysed by the plume of volcanic ash that has covered Europe.

The couple's bodies were flown from Warsaw to Krakow early today for the tradition-laden ceremony and burial in the nearby Wawel Cathedral, the final resting place for Poland's kings, poets and statesmen, including General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled World War Two leader who died in a mysterious plane crash off Gibraltar in 1943.

US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the leaders who cancelled at the last minute because of the expanding volcanic ash cloud, dangerous to aeroplane engines, that has enveloped Europe and closed nearly all of the continent's airports since late on Thursday.

"All the French people will be, in their thoughts, with the Polish people" today, Mr Sarkozy said in a letter sent to acting president Bronislaw Komorowski expressing his regret for being unable to attend.

The volcanic ash did not deter everyone. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew by plane from Moscow for the funeral. His presence was further sign of the warming ties between the two countries, which had been strained for centuries, and recently because of communism and the 1940 Katyn massacre.

Others, including the leaders of Baltic and Balkan states, came by car for the stately event.

Despite the dearth of global dignitaries, no one said the funeral should be postponed.

"I wouldn't move the funeral," said Bartek Kargol, who was among thousands of people waiting for the event in Krakow. "This event is for our president."

Christian Stoltner, a German student, said Poles need their time to mourn.

"One cannot do anything about the fact that there are ashes around now," he said. "The date was set and momentum was built and slowly it's time to find closure."

The funeral Mass in Latin was held at St Mary's Basilica, a 13th-century red-brick Gothic church set on a vast market square in Krakow's Old Town.

Inside, scores of Poland's political elite were seated in the ancient pews, shoulder to shoulder with leaders from Estonia, Belarus, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

The Mass was led by Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. The Kaczynskis' daughter, Marta, and the president's twin brother, Jaroslaw, sat in the front row as Mozart's Requiem was played.

After the Mass, the bodies of the first couple were carried in a funeral procession across the picturesque Renaissance Old Town and up the Wawel hill, the historic seat of kings where a fortress wall encircles a castle and 1,000-year-old cathedral overlooking the Vistula River.

The funeral was eight days after the Polish Air Force Tupolev 154 crashed on approach to Smolensk, Russia, killing the first couple and 94 others.

After an all-night vigil at St John's Cathedral in Warsaw, the bodies of the couple were driven slowly through Warsaw past places linked to Mr Kaczynski's life, including City Hall, where he served as mayor of Warsaw, and a museum he championed on the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

They were then flown by military transport to Krakow, below the volcanic ash plume. As their funeral cortege made its way to St Mary's, thousands of mourners lined the streets and many tossed bouquets of flowers on the hearses.

Ahead of the Mass, scores of people flocked to a memorial at the base of Wawel Hill to pay tribute to those who died, leaving flowers and candles

Pictures of Mr Kaczynski and his wife, as well as other victims, could be seen amid candles and flowers left by mourners who came to pay their respects.

Last Saturday's crash - which investigators have said was likely to have been caused by human error - plunged Poland into a deep grief not seen since the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago.

The plane went down in heavy fog after clipping a birch tree on approach to Smolensk, Russia. Those aboard had planned to attend a memorial for thousands of Polish army officers executed in 1940 by Josef Stalin's secret police.

The first couple will be laid to rest together in a honey-hued sarcophagus made from Turkish alabaster in a crypt of the cathedral and it will be open to mourners after the ceremonies today.

The decision to bury Mr Kaczynski at Wawel sparked protests in recent days, with people saying that despite the national tragedy he still does not belong in the company of some of the nation's most august figures.

Karolina Rajchel, 19, a student who travelled five hours from Wroclaw, said she had not supported every step that Mr Kaczynski took, but called the protests "out of place" in light of his death.

"Kaczynski had good and bad qualities but now you shouldn't say anything bad about the dead," she said. "I am here to honour the president as well as all those who died."

Among those buried there are Jozef Pilsudski; Romantic-era poet Adam Mickiewicz; and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a hero of the American Revolution and of Poland's 1794 uprising against Russia's occupation.



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